HEROES IN AN AGE OF CANCEL CULTURE

So-called “cancel culture” is spreading like wildfire across the literary landscape.  It’s got to the point where employees of publishers are trying to exercise a veto over what books their employers publish.  As one progressive commenter put it, “Nobody has a human right to a lucrative book contract without regard for whether their opinions are sound or valuable.”  Yes, he really said that.  Clearly, as far as he’s concerned, free speech is subjective rather than objective.  As the UK Evening Standard notes:

Take JK Rowling, who was labelled a toxic transphobe after she posted a tweet mocking the word “people” who menstruate instead of “women” … Staff working on Rowling’s latest children’s book, The Ickabog, at Hachette were so “upset” they threatened to down tools. The management pushed back. “We will never make our employees work on a book whose content they find upsetting for personal reasons, but we draw a distinction between that and refusing to work on a book because they disagree with an author’s views outside their writing, which runs contrary to our belief in free speech,” was the official statement.

A former employee puts it differently. “The employees were encouraged to follow diversity and pro-trans initiatives. There was only one way we were supposed to think about these issues, but then JK Rowling, their most successful author, said what she said, so the management had to take a stand in favour of free speech and face down the younger staff. That’s when they realised these initiatives had gone too far in the first place, which a lot of employees felt, but no one was prepared to come out and say it.”

. . .

Similarly, the news that Penguin Random House Canada would be publishing outspoken Canadian psychologist and life coach Jordan Peterson’s sequel to his 12 Rules for Life apparently reduced many of its employees “to tears”.

There’s more at the link.

As smaller-scale independent authors, we can’t do much about the wider culture.  Each of us, taken individually, is too small – in market presence, in influence, in prominence – to make much of a difference.  However, we’re also less likely to face “cancel culture” pressure from our publishers, because most of us are self-published.  As for the outlets where we sell our books, yes, “cancel culture” may close some of them to us;  but in the Internet age, there are always alternatives.  If we can’t find one today, one will emerge tomorrow – or we can band together and build a new one.  The “gatekeeper” function of traditional publishing is long dead.

That being the case, there’s one area where any and every author can make a difference in an age of “cancel culture”:  namely, the nature of our protagonists.  Who are the heroes of our books?  Are we, in fact, writing heroes, or just people who “go along to get along”?  Do our protagonists change the world around them, or do they simply drift along with the current of the times, not so much “doing” as “being done unto”?

I think this is important, because every segment of our society – whether we like it or not – has heroes.  The progressive left would probably regard Antifa and BLM rioters as the “heroes” of 2020, whereas others would regard them as the villains of the piece.  There are some on the right of US politics who regard President Trump as a hero, while others on the left see him rather differently.  Heroism, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

It’s important to note that the heroes who inspire society live on in legend and popular imagination long past their mortal lifetimes.  Consider Horatius Cocles, immortal in memory for his stand at the Pons Sublicius in 508 BC.  Admittedly, he had an equally immortal literary agent in Macaulay with his immensely influential colonial-era poem “Horatius” – a classic example of an “author’s hero” surpassing and eclipsing the “historical hero” in popular imagination.  Can you imagine a modern progressive icon like “Pajama Boy” becoming as entrenched in current or future imagination as Horatius was in the imagination of the Victorian era?  Compare and contrast:

Horatius Cocles vs Pajama Boy

We may well laugh at such a comparison, but let’s face it:  any writer can shape the opinions of his or her readers.  Some would say it’s incumbent upon us to try.  If so, what sort of heroes should we be crafting for today’s society?  Should we write heroes that “cancel culture” will applaud, or should we write heroes that history will remember?

I know which option I’ll choose . . .

24 comments

  1. — Heroism, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. —

    While “opinions vary” — they always will — they cannot change the underlying reality. Neither is it a matter of definitions; that affects only the words we use. What the sane among us call heroism would be exactly the same even if you were to call it mah-jongg.

    It’s the reality that inspires and exalts, not the word used to label it and not the opinion of some gaggle of word-mincing onlookers. And it continues to be vitally important to celebrate it in fiction.

  2. I’m actually reassured to hear that the “staff revolts” have been nothing but the usual bullies latching on to the required training and throwing what they figured would be an approved fit.

  3. *Snort* Seeing that repulsive smirk reminds me that I put that onesie-wearing dweeb into one of my one of the Lone Star Sons stories, just for grins and giggles, as a useless, cowardly foil for my two heroes.

  4. Truth be told, I don’t think anyone considers “Pajama Boy” to be a hero for our time. Even those who aren’t actively mocking him know that a hero needs to do more than put on his jammies, drink cocoa, and sign up for health insurance.

    The BLM/Antifa crowd are closer to what the Left considers heroes. They’re doing stuff. Repulsive stuff almost exclusively to people that they know won’t fight back, but they’re doing stuff nonetheless. In Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, he discussed the relationship between the Leftist political-types and the violent radicals back in the 60s; the Leftists were on some level appalled, but on another level wished they had the courage to be out there actively fighting The System rather than just denouncing it. He could just as easily be describing the Pajama Boy/BLM dynamic.

    1. There’s a Public “Service” Announcement being run on the radio stations here. In what I call the “wise cowboy” voice, it tells listeners that they are “heroes” for wearing their mask, keeping six feet away from other human beings, and washing their hands.

      Phaugh.

      The first two are examples of cowardice to my mind. The last only shows that you had a good mommy that taught you basic principles of hygiene.

      1. Should clarify there – if you are in a high risk group for serious problems, the first two are common sense – any reduction in risk (although these are small) is a smart thing. Still is not “heroic” by any means. (Not “selfish,” either).

        Although I am not in such a group, I’ll admit that I am a semi-coward myself. I avoid getting into a tangle with the Mask Gestapo by wearing a “facial covering” and toeing the distance marks in checkout lines, although I don’t care how close other people get to me. But minor rebellion that I can get away with – that’s not “heroism,” either, just plain cussedness.

  5. True heroism is, and must be, based in service to Civilization, that structure that provides the greatest freedom, stability, and prosperity to the greatest number of its’ adherents.
    Heroic acts, those of courage, self-sacrifice, and loyalty to principle may be done both by defenders of Civilization like Horatius, and by its’ enemies.
    Enemy actions are just that, and evil, regardless of the nature or quality of the individual persons’ action.
    This is so because differing cultures, polities, and civilizations are not all equal.
    There may be ways to live together other than our Western Civilization, but if they do not provide for the people who live in them to rise to their potential, and live according to the dictates of their conscience within the bounds of society, they are lesser alternatives.
    Heroes inspire us to be better than we might be otherwise, and provide a guide to actions which support and defend our Civilization.
    Please keep writing them.
    John

  6. The other thing about heroism is that it is a uaually a voluntary act on the part of the hero, going beyond what could be expected from an ordinary person in that circumstance, though there can be cultural differences.
    One example is that Western Civilization distinguishes between the demanded sacrifice of the Kamikazi pilot from the voluntary self-sacrifice of a defending Navy pilot ramming that attacker to defend a ship.
    In wartime Japan, while the Kamikaze pilot might have been seen internally as a hero for being one, the society for which he fought rendered his actions evil.
    John

    1. Another difference between self-sacrifice and the actions of either the kamikaze pilot or the suicide bomber is that an individual engaging in self-sacrificial acts is risking his/her life in order to save others, whereas the kamikaze pilot or suicide bomber are killing themselves in order to kill others. This difference is either partially or wholly explains why we in the west view the former as honourable acts deserving of remembrance (and sometimes medals (depending on the circumstances)) but the latter as dishonourable acts that disgust us.

  7. Every hero is the villain of the other side’s self-narrative. Every self righteous jerk sees himself as the hero. Never mind the rhetoric and posturing on either side. There is daring, and there is non-daring. That’s a real, objective distinction. You can equivocate over morality, but not that. Ninety percent of failure is refusing to show up when it matters.

    But most people are not agonists. That’s why I don’t read stories about most people. They’re secondary characters in their own lives. There’s nothing really wrong with them, other than there being nothing special about them.

    Then there are the mooks. The foot soldiers. The non-player characters. Give them credit: they’re doing something. Just not on their own initiative. Born to be tools. You need to get past them to get to the Big Bad. They can be quite a nuisance. They look like a big problem because there are so many of them. Never forget there’s a Big Bad behind them. The mooks are there for you to get past, and then you’re done with them.

    1. Every hero is the villain of the other side’s self-narrative.

      Not so, outside of some rather unhealthy cultures– it use to be common to recognize and honor heroic conduct on behalf of the other side. Even the Japanese recognized and respected those American Navy pilots who gave their lives heroically, and an incredibly popular singer sang a song honoring those who lost the American civil war, at the beside of the last survivor.

      Every self righteous jerk sees himself as the hero.

      There is nothing about being a self-righteous jerk which makes one incapable of heroics, even if the designation is accurate.

      Many folks who do unequivocally heroic acts are unpleasant to be around.

      1. I agree, it is possible to recognise heroic acts by the enemy. This is especially true in theatres of war where nature can be more dangerous than a human being.
        I that light I note that it is not unknown for people to be awarded medals by both sides in a war for their actions during that war. While in many cases the medals are awarded for espionage (sometimes by an enemy they had successfully deceived), there are rare examples where the actions genuinely deserve the honours bestowed. One example is Rick Jolly, who commanded field hospitals in the Falkland Islands during the Falklands War, and in addition to his British medals for the campaign was given the Orden de Mayo by the Argentine government because he had treated injured Argentine prisoners of war in the same way that he had treated injured British servicemen.
        I note also that there used to be a convention that after a city/fortress fell after a siege, if in the eyes of the commander of the besieging forces the defenders had fought with sufficient bravery they were permitted to march out in order with colours flying and pipes (or equivalent) playing. It didn’t change the fact that the defenders ended up as prisoners of war, but it was an honour that the enemy could grant or deny.

      2. Rather unhealthy cultures? If by that you mean an enemy that has not yet been atom bombed to contrition, then yes.

        Every hero is someone else’s villain. If you ignore that truth, you will be blindsided by the ferociousness of their hate. After you’ve curb-stomped them, they may honor your heroes – strictly after the fact – as a way of licking your boots. In the meantime, don’t be surprised that they hate and slander you simply for standing up for yourself.

        Also, those who themselves have valor will honor and respect valor in an enemy. But that’s not what the OP is about. Most people don’t have that kind of valor. They just don’t.

        Until you have won, it’s all “how dare you fight back!”

        1. Rather unhealthy cultures? If by that you mean an enemy that has not yet been atom bombed to contrition, then yes.

          If you weren’t familiar with the situation, you could’ve either asked or looked it up.
          The Japanese recognized the pilots’ bravery well before we dropped anything not conventional.

          The unhealthy cultures I mentioned are the ones where it is not what is done that matters, but who is doing it.

          Your understanding of humanity does not accurately predict observable past actions.

          1. Fine, let’s all aspire to be seen as brave villains by an extinct Bushido subculture. Which, by the way, never actually understood our culture.

            Come to think of it, that does make a better story. There’s less to learn from it that would be applicable to the world we live in, but it works for escapist purposes. It’s enough to make you pine for enemies like that.

            Perhaps every society gets the enemies it deserves. The Greatest Generation was worthy of better enemies than we are. A healthy culture attracts apex predators. A dying culture attracts carrion eaters.

            1. Fine, let’s all aspire to be seen as brave villains by an extinct Bushido subculture. Which, by the way, never actually understood our culture.

              What on earth is someone with your reading comprehension issues doing on a blog about writing?

              Conversation means an exchange of information and/or ideas. That means you may, gasp, run into new information, and worse yet run into people who disagree with you, and can support it.

              If you can’t manage a response that can engage that support, man up and/or put on your big girl undies and deal with it. It’s not like not responding at all would’ve made you look worse.

  8. “Who are the heroes of our books? Are we, in fact, writing heroes, or just people who “go along to get along”? Do our protagonists change the world around them, or do they simply drift along with the current of the times, not so much “doing” as “being done unto”?”

    This is one of the reasons I stopped reading most Big 5 work after ~2012. The example Hugo Award piece is “The World Turned Upside Down” wherein the MC is a hapless moron who begins the story by scurrying to rescue his pet goldfish instead of a woman who then falls to her death. That’s pretty much what I expect these days in award winning fiction.

    Apples to apples, compare and contrast the “Hero” of Charles Stross “The Laundry” with Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files”. One is an admirable if sneaky human being, the other is a putz who seems to be done-unto a great deal more than one might expect in a wizard protecting the world from evil.

    So no, I’m not going to read it. I will go back and re-read Christopher Stasheff before I’ll bother with these fashionable nebbishes. There’s a Yiddish word that captures the SJW spirit rather nicely.

    Who’s in -my- book? The kid who works the auto-parts counter and fiddles with his truck on the weekend. He’s the hero. He has absolute power dropped on him and manages not to let it turn him into a monster. Corruption is a choice, not fate.

    Alice Haddison, the shit magnet who took down her first serial killer at age 13 with a pencil in the English classroom at school. Went to war for her country age 17, came home to fight zombies age 23. She’s got issues, and scars, but she fights anyway.

    Sylvia Mynarski, the moose who all the other women are saying “She Hulk is gay!” about behind her back. More issues and more scars, fights anyway.

    Erwin, the necromancer’s “apprentice” who stays alive by crawling through cracks in the walls of the castle and stealing food. Who plans to avenge his family, and -does- it.

    Jimmy Carlson, the hopeless nerd who can’t hold a conversation. Skinny and dweeby until somebody threatens his robot girlfriend. Then, not so much.

    There are no nebbishes here. There are regular people getting stuck with a huge problem and stepping up to it.

    It’s easy enough to find people who hide or sleaze their way through life. No need to write books about them. Virtue is a little harder to find, and worth celebrating.

    1. Dresden is primarily a hero for the defense, so there’s only so much he can go on the offensive, realistically. He also gets more proactive as things go along, but he runs into more powerful enemies that are attacking what he’s defending.

      1. The thing about Dresden missing from the Laundry is that Dresden has his shit together. He’s hooked into what’s going on with the bad guys, his counterspells and traps are sneaky and uinderhanded but they’re THERE, and anything he can’t anticipate he McGyvers his way to victory. He’s on the ball, you know?

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